As summers balmy weather began to move in this June, I started searching for a destination to spend a long weekend visiting, preferably somewhere with a cool mountain breeze. While doing some research, I came upon a little known State Park in the Upper Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee with a lot of promise. Known as, "Tennessee's Best Kept Secret”, Pickett CCC Memorial State Park lies a few miles south across the Kentucky border, within the Pickett State Forest and adjacent to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and Pogue Creek Canyon Natural Area.
This is it, the third and final trail on our list of favorite hikes at Pickett CCC State Park. Our first hike led us to the largest stone shelter in the park, Indian Rockhouse. The second hike led us to Hazard Cave, one of the only places in the world where you can see rare glo worms, found only in the Appalachians. Finally our last and final hike here leads to an expansive arch found on the side of a cliff, known as Natural Bridge.
The trailhead for Natural Bridge is located right across the road from the parks recreation hall. This building, along with all of the original structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, have been beautifully preserved and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The style in which they were built reminds me of the classic road trip movies, where parents dropped their kids of at summer camp as a right of passage into their teenage years.
Directly behind the hall is a boat house with a dock and a good sized beach. Even though the temperature at the moment is hovering around 65 degrees, not very warm for swimming, families are still jumping into the lake to take a dip. Other visitors are choosing to kayak on Arch Lake, which just on the other side of the boat dock, crosses under a natural arch. Just before jumping onto this trail, we spent a few moments crossing over the lake on an awesome looking suspension bridge, getting panoramic views of the entire area.
So once you overcome the many distractions here, head on over to the Natural Bridge trailhead. Walking up the short hill, the path begins a tour of one of the Cumberland Plateaus richest and most diverse areas, Pickett State Forest. Overgrown rhododendrons intermingle with lush ferns, crowding small streams winding downhill towards Arch Lake. Some of the flowering bushes along the trail are actually wild blueberries. Those in areas with stronger sunlight will offer hikers a treat of fresh fruit come this summer, along with some of the wild blackberry growing in the same area.
Reaching the sign that splits the trail to either going over or under the bridge, I opted to go under. A lot of the times, when the trail goes directly over the arch first, it loses that sense of drama, of walking up and seeing the spectacle before your very eyes. Upon crossing the small wooden bridge, the trail begins an uphill climb, straight towards the arch.
Crossing into the clearing, the arch pops right at you. It looks like a structure out of the Flintstones, with its proportions appearing to have been deliberately made, as opposed to weathered over millions of years. Walking underneath the arch, theres a rock shelter on the small hill behind it, along with some wood benches. Stretching out past the arch is another massive sandstone cliff with caverns all along the length of it.
After spending a few moments taking in the views, we were contemplating taking the trail back to go on the trail over the arch when we discovered a rough set of stone steps carved into the rear of the arch. It required a bit of scrambling over some tree roots near the top, but it saved us from having to hike all the way back to the start. The view from the top is even better.
You get a better perspective of the rock shelter, as well as an overhead view of the forest with its dappled sunlight giving it a magical touch. To my amazement, State Route 154, the main highway through the park, is directly above us. People were pulling up, parking their cars, and within second walking down a set of steps onto Natural Bridge. I guess if your just driving past this place, you can still get a quick 5 second walk to see the sights.
Heading back towards the trailhead from above the arch, the path gets really really really thin, as it guides you along the edge of a cliff with a steep drop. Its not for those whom have a fear of heights and if you came with kids, keep a close eye on them. On the plus side, for those who make it past this part, they’ll encounter a small cave along the way. You won’t be able to miss the entrance to this cave with its oversized ledge, and the light on the other end beckoning you to wander over.
During the wetter part of the year, a small stream cascades over the top of this cave and runs through the middle of it, needing the use of this wood plank to cross it. Duck your head going in, and imagine yourself being caught in a thunderstorm and shelter under here, or better yet, stumbling onto a bear sleeping in the cave. Even as an adult, I can’t help but get caught up daydreaming of being a frontiersman while I’m out on a hike.
The excitement of discovering something new keeps me venturing out into the wilderness, now more than ever. Its important to keep a sense of wonder, even into your later years as an adult. This is something I’ve learned from watching my own children's reaction when I take them on these trips. Yeah, they’re not always thrilled to be out on long hikes, and every arch and cave looks the same after a while, but watching their reaction whenever something really makes an impact on them, makes it all worthwhile.
As smaller side adventures to visiting Pickett CCC State Park, I’ll be venturing over to hike sections of Pogue Creek Canyon Natural Area and the Twin Arches Area of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, so stay tuned for those articles. Until then, see you on the trails!